Rights Organizations Demand Sri Lanka Protect Its Religious Minorities

ICC Note:

In an open letter published in a popular Sri Lankan newspaper, human rights and religious organizations in Sri Lanka have called upon the government to protect religious minorities, including Christians. In 2013 alone, Christians in Sri Lanka have been attacked 103 times. Most of these attacks are perpetrated by Buddhist nationalist groups who believe religions other than Buddhism are foreign to Sri Lanka and are willing to commit acts of violence to protect what they believe is Sri Lanka’s Buddhist heritage. Below is an excerpt from the open letter to the Sri Lankan government.

1/23/2014 Sri Lanka (Sri Lanka Guardian) – We the undersigned, strongly condemn the continuing attacks on places of worship by Buddhist extremist mobs, the inaction of the Police in the face of these violent attacks and their failure to take the assailants into custody, and the silence of the established religious institutions and mainstream media.

We are outraged over the spate of violent attacks against places of worship of religious minorities, including those of Christians, Muslims and Hindus, and remain deeply concerned at the apparent State complicity and level of impunity enjoyed by certain extremist groups. Between January to September 2013, 227 attacks against Muslim places of worship and other institutions have been recorded, and in the year 2013, 103 cases of attacks on Christian Churches and Pastors have been recorded. During the same period many Hindu temples too have been attacked around the country. The actual number of incidents is much higher, as many incidents remain unreported, due to fear of reprisals and the lack of confidence in law enforcement agencies.

We urge all communities to respect the religious beliefs and constitutionally guaranteed rights of freedom of assembly in the act of worship of their fellow citizens, and not to be misled by the bigoted propaganda of hate groups.

The most recent attacks took place at around 10am, on January 12, 2014, when the Assemblies of God (AoG) and Calvary Churches in Hikkaduwa (Galle district), were attacked by a 300-strong mob led by men in saffron robes claiming to be “Buddhist monks”, party to an extremist group named Hela Bodu Pawra (loosely translated as Buddhist Heritage Fortress), during their Sunday morning service. Serious damage was caused to the two buildings. Stones were also thrown at the premises while some worshippers were trapped inside. On the night before these attacks (11), the pastors of both churches had received information of the impending attacks, and having informed the Police, were guaranteed protection and instructed to go ahead with the regular service of worship the following morning. Still the Police was still unwilling or unable to stop the mobs from attacking these churches and further, refrained from using legally permitted minimum force at least, to dispel these mobs. (However, on previous instances, the police and security forces have shown very little restraint in using maximum force such as tear gas and even gun fire, as evident during the Free Trade Zone and Weliweriya protests for instance.)

The violent mob alleged that these¬¬¬ churches were not registered with the Ministry of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs, and were therefore illegal. The tense situation prevailed past 12pm, with the Police unwilling to disperse those engaged in these acts of violence. A senior police officer who arrived at the scene gave an assurance to the monks that the churches would be closed for 2 weeks (until 10th February, 2014), during which time the issue would be resolved. Thereafter, the mob had dispersed.

In another incident earlier in the morning on the 12th at around 2.30am, a place of worship of the Foursquare Gospel Church in Pitip¬¬¬¬ana, Homagama, was set on fire by unidentified persons, and a threatening note was found hanging on the gate of the premises warning Christians who gather there of possible dire consequences.

On the following day (13), the Police Spokesman SSP Ajith Rohana stated that the police have compiled a report on the attacks and submitted a list of identified suspects (inclusive of 8 monks), to the courts, and that all investigations concerning protests and demonstrations related to religion will be handed over to the Ministry of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs. It is ironic that investigative duties coming within the direct purview of the Police have, in this instance, been handed over to the Ministry of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs. This action is however in keeping with the trend initiated by the Ministry of Buddha Sasana, in their Circular dated 16th October, 2008, which calls on all new religious places of worship to obtain written approval from the Ministry prior to the setting up/maintaining of such places. This raises the troubling question as to why a multi-ethnic and religious country must seek approval from a Ministry that clearly prioritizes one religion over the rest, by its name alone. Whilst acknowledging that there must be a central and independent body to register/monitor churches and places of worship, we find there lies a conflict of interest in a Ministry tasked (although not exclusively,) to further Buddhism, being the sole authority on approving/registering other places of worship.

The deafening silence on the part of mainstream religious institutions in relation to these attacks, is appalling, albeit not surprising, considering their unwillingness to show solidarity with each other and to confront the government, with the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka being the one exception.

We welcome and reiterate the open letter published by the Muslim Council to President Mahinda Rajapakse calling on him to “…order the law enforcement agencies to rein-in these mobs that infringe on the peoples fundamental right to worship. Should there be any breach of law by any individual or groups, we kindly urge that due process is followed and necessary legal action is taken without letting individuals or religious groups to take the law in to their own hand.”

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